On October 13, 2012, as a four-year-old gelding named Two Month’s Rent lumbered through a driving rainstorm to win the 200,000 dollar Hawthorne Derby, two horses in Barn A exhibited symptoms of the Equine Herpes Virus (EHV-1). The affected horses were feverish and breathing heavily. Soon they had difficulty walking and staying upright. Within 24 hours Barn A was in isolation. The thoroughbreds housed in its seventy-four stalls were scratched from their races and blood samples were taken. Security guards untrained in state-established biohazard protocols stationed themselves outside the barn to enforce them.
Barn A had become ground zero for a potential epidemic. EHV-1 is an airborne pathogen, not unlike the common cold, and it spreads rapidly among horse populations. Some carriers of the disease are asymptomatic, other carriers suffer little more than a fever, but certain infected horses develop ataxia, an often-fatal neurological condition.
While officials waited for the results from the blood tests, the first two horses to display symptoms of EHV-1 died. In the meantime three more horses fell ill. Nobody printed the names of the dead horses.
At a nearby barn, a four-year-old bay named Keep on Singing slept in her stall. She was in the second month of a two-month furlough because her previous races had been disappointments. Keep on Singing is a daughter of Hennessy, out of a Woodman mare named Wood Pattern. Her breeders failed to sell her as a yearling because she didn’t vet; she had knobby ankles. Nobody thought she’d run.
My father bought Keep on Singing for next to nothing. He works as a bloodstock agent, which I explain to people is basically a stockbroker for horses. His job is to evaluate thoroughbreds based on their breeding and conformation and then determine a market value. For over thirty years, he’s advised clients how to invest in thoroughbreds; for over thirty years, he’s watched their horses run and tried to cheer as if they were his own. He is a successful man. Self-made. Respected. But he’s getting older. And for as long as I can remember, he’s talked about training a stable of thoroughbreds, about moving from theory to practice. Keep on Singing was a toe in the water, a calculated risk.
A few days before her debut, my father gave my sisters and me a percentage in Keep on Singing. Spread across miles and time zones, the filly gave us a reason to connect. I watched her first race on the Internet from my studio apartment in Texas. Sarah traveled to Turfway with my parents and fed her a biscuit. Emily texted from Cleveland after she put her newborn to bed. For one night, we were in touch—each of us infected with enthusiasm for the family horse.
If you’d watched that first race, you’d think Keep on Singing a failed investment. She broke dead last in a field of twelve and stayed there, content to circle the rail amid the dust kicked up by other ponies. Hers was the last race of the night under the lights, and it was near midnight by the time she was back in her stall. She’d barely broken a sweat.
There are plenty of racetracks in America that are “dumps” but Hawthorne isn’t one of them. The grounds are manicured if not stately. The infield boasts a small pond; the walking ring offers shade. The backstretch along its one-mile oval is one of the longest in the country. On most days the grandstands sit empty, but at a few stakes races each year, the track fills and takes on the charm of a bygone era. The backside at Hawthorne, however, is not stately. In between rows of horse barns, apartments for grooms and hotwalkers list in the Chicago wind. There are broken windows covered by saddle blankets and doors that have been busted off their hinges more than once.
In truth, the backside of any racetrack offers a less than ideal setting for imposing quarantine. Each day, when the sun rises, trainers breeze their horses over the track. Exercise riders move from mount-to-mount. Grooms muck stalls, lay fresh straw, wheelbarrow manure into mountainous piles. Hotwalkers cool the thoroughbreds down and bathe them with a hose. There is constant movement. Each trainer keeps to his or her routine, but the entire population of the track is connected, and each morning presents another opportunity for a virus to spread.
In late October, two weeks after the initial outbreak, horses outside of Barn A tested positive for EHV-1. Hawthorne moved into full quarantine. Officials established an isolation area for infected horses. “We were trying to isolate one barn,” Dr. Dawn Folker-Calderon, the track’s veterinarian, explained to the Daily Racing Form, “but now we’re treating the whole track as one barn.” Trainers began taking temperatures twice a day and workers in the isolation area donned protective coverings.
Despite these measures, rumors spread that oversight was lax. Authorities in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Florida banned horses from shipping into or out of Hawthorne, and horses that shipped in from other jurisdictions weren’t allowed to leave the track until it was virus-free for 28 days.
In order to account for the rise in scratches, the administration dropped a race from the card. A week later they canceled Wednesday racing. Like most racetracks, the majority of Hawthorne’s income is generated by simulcasting its races to betting sites around the country. The raw numbers behind off-track betting are staggering even if they speak little to the difficulties of keeping a racetrack in the black. During the previous year’s fall meet over 200 million was bet on Hawthorne with 120 million of that coming from out of state. Because gamblers don’t like betting small fields, Hawthorne was hemorrhaging money as a result of the outbreak, but if the track wanted to survive, it needed to keep racing. The trainers and jockeys and grooms needed races too. No racing; no money. For anyone.
After a disappointing start to her career, we moved Keep on Singing to a trainer based out of Hawthorne. Hugh was prone to statements such as, “she could be okay” and “you might be right” and “maybe.” In her second race, Keep on Singing broke last again and bolted towards the outside rail for no apparent reason. She looked comically bad for most of the race, but then, down the homestretch, she found her stride and passed two fillies. For the first time she looked like she belonged. A few weeks later, she broke her maiden (track speak a horse winning its first race). The track’s announcer drew out the word “sing” and raised his voice a register as she crossed the finish line. For weeks afterwards, whenever I talked to my father on the phone, he would emulate the call in this gravelly falsetto: “It’s Keep on Singing. Oodles gaining on the outside. Keep on Siiiiiiinging holds on!”
I spent much of my childhood at the track. Every so often dad would pick me up early from school so we could watch the horses run at Keeneland. We congregated by the walking ring before each race, my father appraising the horses while I studied the Form. He would point out the horse with crooked feet, the colt with a nice gaskin. He seemed to understand a thoroughbred’s nature just by looking at them. I would study the numbers. As the horses made their way to the track, I would follow my dad’s bow-logged shuffle to the betting window where we placed small wagers that we lost more often than not. After the race, he might buy me a Coke and himself a beer. Then we’d return to the same spot by the walking ring. There was a ritual to it all I found comforting. At the track the world seemed in perfect order.
To this day the language of the horseracing gives us a common tongue. We talk about the effects of layoffs or Lasix, about whether the “speed is holding” or horses are “coming from off it.” We talk about poly, dirt, and turf. Our cities are Saratoga, Churchill, Santa Anita. We study breeding. Know what it means to be by Giant’s Causeway, Tapit, or Megdalia d’Oro; what it means to be out of a Distorted Humor mare, an Elusive Quality, a Pulpit. My dad taught me the language, and it’s been swirling in my head ever since.
After breaking her maiden, Keep on Singing struggled to win a second race. The stabling fees and training fees and entry fees started adding up. We dropped her down to claiming races, which anchor the low-end of a track’s offerings. The name comes from the fact that anyone can put a “claim” on a horse and buy it. Basically, if you run your horse in a claimer, it might not be your horse when the race ends. Keep on Singing brought our scattered family together every time she ran but more and more we were left with disappointment when she lost. Dad alone kept the faith. I suppose he saw something in the filly the rest of us couldn’t, and so he kept running her and we kept watching, afraid of the day someone else would walk off with the horse we shared.
Much remains unknown about the EHV-1. Researchers have isolated and studied the mutant gene, but they can’t explain why it mutates. More perplexing is why some carriers never develop ataxia, much less run a fever, while others die within days. Sometimes EHV-1 even enters the horse as a non-neuropathic strain and transforms into the neuropathic variety. For this reason, it is known as “The Dormant Dragon.” Recorded incidence has spiked dramatically over the last decade it is considered an emerging virus by epidemiologists, but it’s been around as long as there have been horses. When active, the virus attacks the lining of the blood vessels and causes the spinal cord to lose blood supply, resulting in the loss of limb coordination, or ataxia. Ataxia comes from the Greek “a taxis,” meaning without order. It is a broad term intended to explain the phenomenon of a body that stops listening to its brain. For horses this manifests itself as an inability to stand, a condition known as “being recumbent.” Horses are designed to move, so unless a sling can be constructed to get a recumbent horse to its feet, that horse will die from muscle necrosis.
Not long after Keep on Singing dropped to claimers, we moved her from dirt to grass, a more forgiving surface and better for knobby ankles. She didn’t win immediately, but she took to the turf and gained confidence. She developed an off-the-pace, late-running style that suited her underdog nature. More than anything, she learned that she liked passing other horses more than being passed by them.
Keep on Singing ended that first season on the track winning four of her last five, moved back up in class from claimers to allowance races. In the books, she went from red to black. My sisters occasionally traveled to Chicago to watch her run. Mom sent photos of her in the winner’s circle. And that winter my wife and I met her for the first time. She nosed our pockets for biscuits and her loose lips played with a button on Becca’s coat. To my eye she didn’t look like a runner—just a filly content to chew some grass—but beneath her shaggy coat lay a competitor, a thoroughbred with a good turn of foot. Like a lot of us, she just needed time to develop.
A month after the outbreak of the EHV-1 virus, the state veterinarian, Dr. Folker-Calderon, told the Daily Racing Form she was hopeful the virus had run its course. The next day an unraced two-year-old filly named Ginger and Spice had a faraway look in her eyes and stood motionless in her stall. Her trainer, Dale Bennett, attempted to move Ginger and Spice to isolation, but the filly fell down somewhere outside Barn E and never got back up.
A few days later the Illinois Thoroughbred Horse Association conducted its first track-wide meeting about preventing the spread of EHV-1. Hawthorne officials, with the backing of the Illinois Department of Agriculture, announced that there would be no changes to protocols already in place.
The virus had moved from the westernmost barn to the easternmost. Dale Bennett led a growing chorus of horsemen asking why the meet hadn’t been halted, why claiming hadn’t been halted, why clearer instructions hadn’t been given, why security measures weren’t properly enforced. “There are too many moving parts,” Bennett told the Daily Racing Form, “Gate people, pony people, the track crew. This thing has gotten out of their control now, and that’s all there is to it.”
Races went ahead as scheduled.
I suppose my father has always dreamed of ponies. Years ago, when he was the age I am now, he and his brother started their own breeding operation. They’d been breaking horses in Arizona for a living, and after an unexpected windfall, invested in a stallion named Gun Magic and a handful of mares. It was a disaster from the start. At some point an undersized pony climbed onto the platform of a stock tank and had his way with their best mare. Then Gun Magic proved infertile. In no time at all they went broke. Uncle Mac returned to the ranch and became a cowboy like his father before him, but Dad, with a thousand dollars, two daughters, and a pregnant wife, moved across the country to Kentucky. He arrived in April 1979 on the day Spectacular Bid won the Bluegrass Stakes. I was born six months later.
Not long after Keep on Singing returned to Hawthorne for her second season on the track, we shipped her up to Canterbury Park and ran her on short rest in the Minnesota HBPA Mile. The Mile was a stakes race, a jump up in competition, but Singing had been training well and it seemed worth a shot. She broke two strides behind the other horses and was the trailer around the first turn. Along the backstretch she kept to the rail and picked off a couple fading fillies, and when the pack tightened around the clubhouse turn, her jockey, Tanner Riggs, bounced her to the outside to get running room. Keep on Singing charged down the homestretch to make a late run at the leaders but came up two lengths short and finished third.
After The Mile, something changed. Maybe it was the short turnaround between races or the van rides between Chicago and Minnesota. Whatever the reason, Keep on Singing’s next two outings were flops. She cruised around the track without a care in the world. She looked bored. Slow.
Around the same time Becca and I flew with my parents to Chicago to watch her run. That morning the smell of freshly laid straw and syrupy horse sweat hung thick in the air. Becca stroked Keep on Singing’s neck and wished her luck. All day long the gray sky over Chicago threatened a coming storm. Dad paced nervously. Keep on Singing’s was the second to last race on the card, and it was a failure from the start. She kept a steady, too-slow pace and circled the track as if she were out on a morning jog. A couple minutes later, she crossed the finish line and the sky opened up and the rain started to fall with an end-of-days furor. Our return flight landed in Kentucky sometime after midnight. I drove the hour and a half home while my parents slept in the backseat, and as I pulled into the driveway, Becca showed me a photo of Keep on Singing craning her neck over my chest while I rubbed her head.
After that race we decided to give Keep on Singing a two-month furlough. The EHV-1 virus came to Hawthorne a month later, and though she was affected by it, just as all the horses stabled at Hawthorne were affected by it, Keep on Singing was never infected. She’d leave the track alive.
Epidemics result from a sort of perfect storm. Start with a virus that’s particularly hard to predict and pin down, something that is good at disguising itself and adept at spreading. Add the right conditions Say hosts that live side-by-side in a series of 8x8 stalls and share feed buckets, sponges, and hoses. Or say a family that is spread across the country and longs for closeness. Finish it off with caretakers that are negligent, not because they don’t care, but because they don’t understand the nature of the disease.
November 26, 2012: A fourth horse dies from infection at Hawthorne.
December 1, 2012: A fifth horse, a recent claim named Angelintheevening, dies from infection.
Dec 2, 2012: Coragil Cat, an eight year old gelding recently retired from racing, develops colic. Even though he has tested negative for EHV-1, his trainer can’t find a clinic that will break quarantine to treat him. In the evening Coragil Cat’s stomach ruptures and he dies.
December 7, 2012: A sixth horse dies from infection.
December 24, 2012: A seventh, and final, horse dies from infection. It is six days until the end of the fall meet.
My father hopes that one day I will return to Kentucky and train horses with him. It is a pipe dream. For one thing I know nothing about training racehorses. I may love the track but that isn’t much résumé. Saying “I want to train racehorses” has about the same ring of truth as, “I want to play shortstop for the Yankees.” Even more problematic is the risk. Keep on Singing made sense because she was low-risk; training a stable of horses is high-stakes, especially if you own those horses and can’t charge someone else training fees. My father, the astute businessman I knew growing up, would never entertain the idea if his judgment weren’t compromised. Something in him has changed. Mutated. Wanting a new challenge comprises him. Watching Keep on Singing battle other horses down the stretch compromises him. The thought of returning to those father-son days at the track compromises him.
My dad and I are stuck in a circularity of sorts. Training horses is a way for him to get me home; my returning home is an excuse for him to train horses. In this sense, I am pretty much just a means to an end, a carrot that can convince him to take a risk. And as much as I want to help him to take that risk, as much as I think he’s earned the chance, I don’t want to be the reason he fails.
Every time my dad called to talk about Keep on Singing, I became infected by his enthusiasm. For days afterward, I too would dream of ponies. I’d picture us in the hazy pre-dawn light of the track, Dad leading a bay filly into the fog so I could saddle her for a morning work. I’d picture us on the rail, stopwatches out. I know that risks are best taken with partners, and I have my own selfish reasons for wanting to join in my father’s dreams, reasons that have their roots back at Keeneland and those boyhood days at the track. The truth is I’ve never had a better friend than my dad and I miss him. I want to be in Kentucky, and I want to share in his dreams, but it’s not the smart play.
After Hawthorne, we hoped to ship Keep on Singing to The Fairgrounds in New Orleans for their winter meet, but Louisiana, like every other racing municipality, banned Hawthorne horses. The long-term plan had always been to breed Keep on Singing and sell her in foal, but in order to do this, we’d need to retire her. The meet in New Orleans was supposed to be her last hurrah, her last chance to compete.
If selling a mare and her unborn foal sounds cold, know that it’s a sound business decision. The truth is that thoroughbreds rarely prove profitable. Most don’t ever win a race. Fewer still win enough to offset the cost of food and training. As a broodmare Keep on Singing had certain value; as a runner her worth remained debatable.
We hesitated to retire Keep on Singing only because we liked watching her run and she liked running. She wasn’t perfectly made for it. We were always worried about her keeping on weight. She was a vain, lithe horse. And those ankles. My father liked to say, “she has ankles” which could be said of any horse, but by which he meant those ankles were worrisome. My sisters and I talked on the phone about what to do, but as much as Keep on Singing was “ours,” the final decision rested with Dad.
Growing up my father taught me that success depends a curious mix of logic and emotion. Thoroughbreds are his passion. He loves the races but he loves the horses more. They are royalty; he talks about them with reverence. And Keep on Singing was his horse to revere. Our horse. Family. In the books she was an investment, no different from a stock or a bond. My father has spent his life advising other people to make practical business decisions about their horses, but it’s hard when that investment eats biscuits from your hand and has a name. It’s hard when the night before she runs you can’t sleep because you’re giddy with excitement.
On Christmas Eve, more than two months after the initial outbreak of the virus, a final horse tested positive for EHV-1. The start date for the 28-day quarantine was supposed to be reset, but after continually changing that date for months, the Illinois Department of Agriculture announced the previously established start date of December 12th would remain intact. There was no further explanation, but it didn’t really matter. The meet was almost over.
The day after Christmas the crowd at Hawthorne bet a three-year-old colt named Magna Fortuna down to 3 to 1 in his maiden start. Magna Fortuna, who his owners called Taxi, was the son of a mare rescued in foal from slaughter by Gail Vacca, founder of the Illinois Equine Humane Center. Everyone at Hawthorne was rooting for the colt. His story had the sort of feel-good potential that makes racing fans tingle, and Hawthorne needed a little feel-good. Unfortunately, Magna Fortuna never even gave the crowd a reason to believe; he crossed the finish line seventeen lengths behind the winner. Under the comments in his chart for the race, Magna Fortuna’s line read, “5w btw foes, faded.” Faded.
We try to understand our world by breaking it down into digestible bits. We isolate the mutant gene to study it. We quarantine the horse with fever. We put down the horse that can’t stand up. And we sell the horse when it’s profitable. But what we fail to isolate eludes us. We don’t see the microbes in the air. We don’t corner the fear that we’ll never have another racehorse like the one we had. And when we think about how we long for home, we change the subject.
We didn’t know it was her final race when she ran it, but in the midst of the quarantine, Keep on Singing circled the track one last time. She was the last to load and broke late and found herself familiarly in last place around the clubhouse turn. It’s here that Keep on Singing came to life. When you watch the video, you can pinpoint the moment she decides to start running. She finds room on the inside and starts methodically picking off horses and all of a sudden she’s in third place and stalking the leaders and she’s driving but the wire’s right there and she won’t catch them and you want to give her more time, you want to believe that if you just give her more time, she’ll run them down, but she doesn’t and she won’t because she can’t.
After the Hawthorne meet ended, Keep on Singing cleared her EHV-1 screen and came home to a Kentucky quarantine facility. After a month, we let her out to pasture, where she always seemed happy, and in the Spring we bred her to Arch. The next fall, as the meet got underway at Hawthorne, we sold her in foal. Now she’s a mother and a new phase of life has begun, but she’s no longer ours.
Around the same time, I returned to Kentucky to help my parents pack up the house where I grew up. They were moving to a place outside of town where there’s room for a few horses, maybe a small stable. And while part of me wanted to stay, wanted to bet on the longshot, there was a return ticket in my pocket, and I left as I have done before and, no doubt, will do again.